The Enemy of My Enemy: Partisans on the Soviet Frontier (1941-1945)

“The enemy shall not escape the people’s revenge” (1941)

The Second World War saw partisan movements in nearly every conflict zone and occupied territory in the world, and the Eastern Front was no exception. Concentrated in occupied Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine, underground resistance movements were organized to disrupt and defeat the German eastern advance. In some cases, these same partisan groups turned on the Soviets following the German capitulation in 1945 to fight for independence from the Soviet Union. Although underground movements were widespread in Eastern Europe, this post focuses on partisan movements in Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine.

When the German military initiated Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, the Red Army was unprepared and forced into retreat, leaving the local populations of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine to fend for themselves against the invaders. The racial supremacy-driven ideology of the Nazi occupiers bred “expropriations and atrocities” that alienated the occupied populations and “fuelled the growth of the partisan movement, which may have enrolled as many as 200,000 people by 1943” (Freeze, 385). While resistance forces were active everywhere along the Eastern Front, most notable were the partisan movements in Poland/Belarus and Ukraine.

Soviet partisans in the forest near Polotsk, Byelorussian SSR, 1943. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Belarus stands apart from other occupied states in that approximately 1/3 of the Belarusian population was killed during the German occupation (Ioffe). Belarusian partisan groups appeared as early as 22 June 1941 when the German Wehrmacht entered Belarus, and the partisan movement grew to about 374,000 strong by 1944 when the Red Army liberated the country (Ioffe). By the time the Red Army reached Minsk in 1944, there were approximately 997 partisan units taking orders from Soviet commanders with an additional 258 units operating independently throughout the country (Iotte). Accounting for the assassinations of nearly 500,000 German military personnel and collaborators as well as the destruction of numerous trains, supply depots, telephone wire, tanks, aircraft, vehicles, bridges, and garrisons, the partisan units were instrumental in the defeat of the German army in Belarus and the westward advance of the Red Army. After the war, Belarus was given increased autonomy in the Soviet Union until its formal independence in 1991 (Iotte).

A member of the Polish AK wields a Polish adaptation of the American M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polish_resistance_movement_in_World_War_II#/media/File:Zdzis%C5%82aw_de_Ville.jpg

Polish partisans operated widely in Poland and western Belarus during the occupation of Poland. Formed in 1939 following the joint German-Soviet invasion of Poland, the Home Army (AK) was the primary armed Polish partisan wing (Ney-Krwawicz). The AK was commanded by the Polish government-in-exile and cooperated with the Soviet Union until 1943 when the USSR refused to recognize the Polish government and began disarming AK units (Geldern). As a result, the AK began treating both Germans and Soviets as hostiles and closely aligned with the British through the end of the war (Kondracki). By June 1944, the AK and its affiliates were responsible for the destruction of thousands of tonnes of military hardware and the liberation of many Polish precincts that paved the way for the Soviet offensive of 19 January 1945. Three days later, the Soviet invasion of Germany began from Warsaw (Ney-Krwawicz).

The Ukrainian Insurgent Army was perhaps the only underground movement in World War Two to fight against both the Axis and the Allies.
Members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army posing with captured Soviet small arms
https://militaryhistorynow.com/2014/03/03/stuck-in-the-middle-the-forgotten-and-bloody-history-of-the-ukrainian-insurgent-army/

With the memories of Soviet-Ukrainian War of 1917-1920 and Polish subjugation of western Ukraine in mind, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) collaborated with the Germans against the Poles and Soviets from 1939-1943 based on the promise of Ukrainian independence (Globalsecurity.org). Stepan Bandera, leader of the OUN, declared an independent “Ukrainian State” on 10 June 1941 with nominal German support. Shortly after in August 1941, the “Ukrainian State” was dissolved and Bandera was transferred to a concentration camp along with many of his associates (Globalsecurity.org). By 1943, the OUN severed ties with the German military and began fighting against both the Germans and Soviets for an independent Ukraine. The OUN and its affiliates helped drive the German army out of Ukraine and used the abandoned German arms and equipment to resist Soviet advance and continued to operate into the 1950s (Globalsecurity.org). The OUN was one of few groups that actively fought against both sides during the Second World War.

In the early months of the Second World War, the Red Army was forced to abandon much of the Soviet frontier in the wake of the German Blitzkrieg. However, the underground partisan movements that arose in opposition to the German occupation were pivotal in the slowing of the German eastern advance and the eventual Soviet victory in Europe. Partisan groups, regardless of their end goals, hampered German war-fighting capabilities by destroying supply and communication lines, disrupting troop movements, and assassinating key German leaders which paved the way for the Red Army’s march to Berlin.

Works Cited

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Global Security. “Ukraine – Anti-Soviet Partisans – 1941-1949.” (n.d.).

Ioffe, Grigory. “The Partisan Movements in Belarus During World War II (Part One).” Eurasia Daily Monitor (2015).

Kondracki, Tadeusz. “The Warsaw Uprising.” Polish Resistance-AK (n.d.).

Ney-Krwawicz, Marek. “The Polish Underground State and Home Army.” Polish Resistance-AK (n.d.).

von Geldern, James. “Partisans in the Forest.” n.d.

10 thoughts on “The Enemy of My Enemy: Partisans on the Soviet Frontier (1941-1945)

  1. This post was well written and fascinating to read. I did not really know anything about the impacts of the partisan movements so this was a good informative overview. I found it interesting that two of the three groups you discussed ended up being hostile to both sides. While you state that the groups ended up being more detrimental to the German war effort, I am curious what impacts they had on the Soviets both during and after the war.

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    1. Many of the partisan groups that were active during WWII continued operating in opposition of the USSR well into the Cold War era. A notable group was called the Forest Brothers in the Baltic States who actively fought the Soviets before, during, and after the war. Rather than having any huge impacts on the USSR, these groups were more of a nuisance that tied up Soviet resources rather than being a significant threat. Thank you for the feedback!

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      1. Thanks for bringing up the Forest Brothers. I agree that they might not have represented a significant military threat, but they certainly played a key role in stiffening Soviet resolve to re-integrate the Baltic states after the war – and by being so resilient — small pockets of them persisted for decades — they served as a constant reminder of where local sympathies lay. They would not have survived without local support and shelter.
        Your post ties in really nicely with Joy’s analysis of Estonian nationalism via its national song festivals: https://jvillvt.wordpress.com/2020/04/12/coachestonia-music-festival/comment-page-1/#comment-114

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  2. Hey Eric, your post was super informative. I think its really interesting to see how these partisan movements substantially influenced the war, especially since they did have the total support of the USSR. It really goes to show how much the Soviets actually care about supporting their bloc, and how these blocs really felt about the Soviets and how they could defend for themselves.

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    1. What is most interesting about these partisan units is how various age groups within them viewed the Soviet Union. The older age ranges saw the USSR as having abandoned them when the Germans invaded while younger members viewed the Red Army as great liberators. Most partisan groups formed out of nationalism and animosity towards the Germans rather than any great love for the Soviet Union that abandoned them (Belarus being the main exception to this trend having full loyalty to the USSR throughout). I appreciate the comment!

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      1. I think this is a really important point. Also, that there were LOTS of partisans with a range of conflicting and evolving agendas. Because the Germans overran so much Soviet territory in the early phases of the war, the challenges of civilian resistance / partisan organization were difficult and also critical to the overall victory. There’s also a strongly gendered component to the way the partisan experience was captured in the popular imagination. Check out the clips from the “Women in War Films” videos on 17 Moments: http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1943-2/women-in-war-films/women-in-war-films-video/
        And if you ever get a chance to watch “She Defends the Motherland” (aka “No Greater Love”), it’s well worth it. The film was distributed in the US in 1943 as part of the effort to mobilize American support for the Soviet war effort.

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  3. Really nice post and very informative about the partisan movement on the eastern front. Something I find interesting is that the Soviet government did not equally trust all the partisan groups, even ones that were pro soviet. And they preferred for Communist party members to lead the partisan groups, if not the groups were treated with hostility from by the Red Army once they liberated an area.

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    1. This was a big issue with many of the partisan units that eventually turned on the Red Army. A prime example is the Polish Home Army that faced disarmament by Soviet units and began treating the Red Army as hostile after the withdrawal of the Germans. The Soviets treated all partisan units with extreme suspicion over fears of nationalistic movements like that in Ukraine and only claimed credit for their actions following the allied victory in Europe. I appreciate the comment!

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  4. I was very interested to read Freeze’s assertion that unrest behind the front lines in the territory the Germans had captured was a major contributor to their inability to hold that territory. The partisans’ resistance turned what could have been integrated into the German economy/supply chain to support the war effort into a net drain on resources. Instead of being able to feed and supply the occupying force off of the spoils of the taken territory, the Germans had to actually devote resources towards feeding and maintaining order in those lands. In a war of attrition like the Eastern Front, that additional economic pressure would soon add up.

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    1. That is definitely true. Hitler’s obsession with ethnic cleansing and ridding eastern Europe of the “subhumans” resulted in the alienation of the local populations which took up arms against the Germans instead of collaborated with them. As a result, the German military was forced to divert valuable resources to hunting down partisan groups rather than engaging the Red Army. Thanks for the comment!

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